Published 1 month ago.
About a 7 minute read.
Image: Arina Krasnikova
With 'Speak Volumes,' we aim to draw awareness to overproduction and create a more just distribution
of responsibility for fashion waste clean-up — which builds on our overall goal
of promoting a shift
towards a justice-led, circular fashion economy.
When I left the fashion industry in the US and began working in Ghana in
2011, it was rare to find clothing waste on Accra’s beaches. Today, there
are mounds of clothing taller than I am across the beaches and massive tentacles
of clothing waste polluting waterways. The textile waste on Accra’s beaches
makes it dangerous for children to play and difficult for turtles to lay their
eggs; it has trapped puppies, leading them to drown as the tide comes in; and
when the tentacles are animated by the waves, they are powerful enough to
capsize fishing boats. The waste has devastated local fishing stocks, leading
canoe fishermen to travel further out to sea and increasing the risk associated
with this profession. Not to mention polluted water can increase the spread of
diseases such as cholera and malaria. This textile-waste crisis has transformed
the very ecology of Accra’s beaches and rivers, and it costs lives.
Importantly, these mounds of clothing waste are not the result of local
overproduction or overconsumption. This clothing is secondhand — exported from
Global North countries including the US, UK, EU and Canada. Through
the beach cleanups The Or Foundation has affectionately
termed “tag hunts,” we have catalogued that the most common brand labels in the
waste stream are not local, but rather represent some of the biggest producers
with profit centers in Global North countries — brands including H&M,
Zara, Nike, adidas and Marks & Spencer.
the largest secondhand marketplace in the world, is situated in the center of
Accra and receives roughly 15 million secondhand garments every week in a
country of only 32 million people. The 30,000 people who work in Kantamanto are
doing an incredible job of successfully reselling, repairing and remanufacturing
over 25 million garments, roughly 57,000 tonnes, per year. For comparison, For
to have collected and processed 350,000 take-back bags — which is equivalent to
no more than 2,381 tonnes, or roughly 450,000 garments in 2023; and ThredUp’s
2022 Impact Report
that the company has processed (not sold) 172.3 million items cumulatively since
its founding in 2009.
While these Global North companies earn well-deserved praise for championing
circularity, it is clear that the Kantamanto community has done far more, for
decades, to process the byproduct of the Global North’s oversupplied fashion
industry — developing replicable skills for not only resale but also repair and
remanufacturing. Still, as all fashion brands know well, there is no retail
utopia. Despite Kantamanto’s impressive efforts, 40 percent of the clothing in
each bale cannot be sold and leaves the market as waste due to the
oversaturation of lower-quality garments currently flooding the market.
Join us for a transformational experience at SB Brand-Led Culture Change — May 8-10 in Minneapolis. This event brings together hundreds of brand leaders eager to delve into radical lifestyle shifts and sustainable consumer behavior change at scale. The trends driving cultural acceleration are already underway, and you can be at the forefront of this transformative movement.
Accra’s textile-waste crisis may seem far away for you; but I am convinced that
if our mounds of clothing occupied your favorite beach or your backyard, you
would feel compelled to clean it up. What would be your first step in cleaning
it up? Surely, you would want to know the amount of waste, assess the extent of
the damage and then plan accordingly. This is what we have done here in Accra.
Now, we would like the industry as a whole to come clean on the number of
garments produced every year. This is the one data point that we feel is most
essential for our community — and for the industry as a whole — to not only
address the current crisis but also to develop data-driven policies and a truly
effective strategy for transitioning from linear to circular production.
Somehow, despite society’s near-constant tracking of data, we don’t know how
many garments are produced each year. Researchers think it’s somewhere between
100 and 150 billion. There really is no excuse for this massive data gap.
Production volume is the one data point that impacts everyone along the value
chain — whether you are a garment worker, a shipping company, a designer, a
retail associate, a clothing collector, a resale
or a clothing charity. And companies know how many units they have ordered from
suppliers or produced themselves.
Despite the lack of clarity on the number of garments currently in circulation,
production volumes are expected to increase as evidenced by WRAP’s 2022/23
— which shows a 13 percent increase in production volumes amongst Wrap’s
Textiles 2020 member brands, which
include 33 retailers that represent over 62 percent of all clothing products
placed on the UK market. Our efforts to clean up the mess in our backyard are no
match for endless production volumes; and without transparency on the number of
garments produced, we cannot prepare for the impact of policies such as the EU’s
mandated separate collection of textiles. Without this data, we question the
EU’s ability to prepare itself for the impact of this mandate. Given that the
industry currently recycles less than 1 percent of clothing into new clothing,
we also question how emerging recycling solutions alone can possibly catch up —
the investments made by brands in fiber-to-fiber recycling technologies such as
will be futile if not paired with transparency on current production volumes and
a concerted effort to reduce the production of new items made from virgin
materials. If we continue on this current path, the growth in material volume of
textiles is expected to see an increasing amount of nonrenewable textile sources
— up to 300 million tonnes per year by
fashion industry would also end up using more than 20 percent of the world’s
carbon budget associated with a 2°C
pathway, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
That’s why The Or Foundation launched “Speak
Volumes” — a
campaign to foster greater transparency within the fashion industry by
encouraging brands, including the brands most often
washed up on Ghana’s beaches, to publicly disclose their production volumes by
item. To date, Collina Strada, Finisterre, Lucy & Yak, Stripe &
Stare, Asket and many
others have not only disclosed
their 2022 production volumes but committed to sharing production volumes in
their sustainability reporting going forward. What started as a goal of 100
companies will continue until the biggest producers step up.
With “Speak Volumes,” we aim to draw awareness to overproduction and create a
more just distribution of responsibility for fashion waste clean-up — which
builds on our overall goal of addressing the fashion industry’s growing waste
crisis and promoting a shift towards a justice-led, circular fashion economy.
“Speak Volumes” is part of The Or Foundation’s Stop Waste
Colonialism campaign, calling
for extended producer
(EPR) policies to be globally accountable and to include reduction targets —
as outlined in our position
paper on the issue.
Executives recognize that this is an effortless sustainability disclosure — compared to, for instance, calculating the carbon
— and that publishing such information can position them as a leader for
setting this new standard.
Brands with resale
and circularity targets are recognizing the benefit of tracking production
volumes as a measure of displacement and impact.
Journalists, researchers, sustainability advocates and policymakers have a
clearer understanding of the difference between units, weight and SKUs when
it comes to building infrastructure for circularity and crafting policy.
We encourage industry groups such as the Fashion
to publish volumes, promoting collective transparency.
Solving fashion’s waste crisis will require everyone working in fashion to
act with urgency, as if the waste on Accra’s beaches represents the reality
everywhere. We invite brands to be part of the movement to "Speak Volumes,"
while individuals can petition their favorite brands to participate.
To join this vital movement and embrace transparency, visit:
Published Jan 16, 2024 2pm EST / 11am PST / 7pm GMT / 8pm CET
Liz is an educator, designer and strategist. Working within the industry as a designer and stylist, Liz witnessed the toxicity of fashion’s disposable culture firsthand and has since been dedicated to transforming the industry.